Although The Ancient Magus’ Bride is serialized in a shounen magazine in Japan, it bears a lot of parallels to the supernatural romance fantasies you commonly see in shoujo, particularly in its focus on the emotional life and development of the young female protagonist.
In the story, 15-year-old Chise Hatori willingly allows herself to be sold at an underground auction for members of a secret magical community, where she is purchased as an apprentice to one of the last true mages, Elias Ainsworth. Although Elias appears inhuman, he treats Chise with a kindness she has only rarely encountered—and also declares his intention to one day marry her.
CONTENT WARNING for discussions of abuse.
I was fortunate enough to see the first three episodes of the anime in theaters this July, where a pretty diverse crowd was gathered. I attended mostly with other female friends who had already read the manga, but in line we got into a conversation with a group of young men who had bought tickets on a whim, since they were fans of Attack on Titan (also produced by Studio WIT). They asked us if we knew what the show was about. When we told them, they were shocked and initially uncomfortable.
Certainly, the premise of Magus’ Bride is a strange one, but their surprise stemmed more from concern that the story would be a horror tale about the protagonist being mistreated. The reactions of these strangers probably aren’t representative of some larger gender divide in how people react to this show, but it did make me think that, as a fan of the manga, I may have started to take the power imbalance in the premise for granted.
SPOILER WARNING: This article references events from Volumes 1-7 of The Ancient Magus’ Bride manga.
The pairing of a meek young woman with a self-assured and wealthy man is common in shoujo manga, sometimes leading to depictions of abusive or unhealthy relationships that are tacitly treated as acceptable by the story and audience (for examples of this, see Caitlin’s series on Romance and Abuse in Shoujo). Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a story depicting a relationship between a paternalistic man and a less self-assured woman. It’s a valid fantasy in its own right, and doesn’t automatically constitute abuse.
Still, we can and should take a critical approach to analyzing the characters and relationships in our media to see if it reinforces bad relationships or not. As readers with feminist ideals, stories like this matter to us because relationships between men and women are a potent site for feminist praxis, and we want to see such relationships depicted in a compassionate way in media.
In the first chapter (and episode), Chise has signed herself away to a strange merchant to be auctioned off to a denizen of a magical community that exists unseen alongside our own. She is expected to command a high price because she is a Sleigh Beggy, a rare type of person able to produce enormous quantities of magical energy. This power, paired with her ability to see magical creatures and spirits, has been a curse to Chise her entire life, leading to terrifying apparitions harassing and hurting her while other people believe she’s mentally ill or seeking attention.
Although the element of fantasy is front and center here, Chise’s experience is rooted in realistic abuse and neglect that Yamazaki fortunately treats with a delicate touch. Chise’s mother (who shared her sight, if not her Sleigh Beggy powers) became abusive and suicidal after the two were abandoned by the rest of their family, and eventually attempted to kill Chise before committing suicide. Chise was left to the care of relatives who wanted nothing to do with her, passing her along from home to home and neglecting her.
Having survived so many traumatic experiences, she grows to be a teenager with little self-worth. It’s implied she was considering or attempting suicide when she was approached and offered the option to sell herself at the auction house. Wanting nothing more than to be needed, if not loved, by anyone, she is swayed by the merchant’s words: “If you are so willing to discard your life, why not give yourself to someone who can make use of you?” When she meets Elias, Chise is primarily motivated by this desire to receive acknowledgment from others, regardless of the cost to her own well-being.
However, Elias himself is not motivated solely by altruism. As an unnatural combination of mage and fey, Elias is considered a frightening outcast among both communities. He admits to Chise early on that he either has no emotions or simply cannot understand them as humans do, and he knows next to nothing about human relationships of any kind, be they romantic, platonic, or familial.
In Volume 4, we learn that Elias was adopted by his teacher, Lindel, as an apprentice when he was young and helpless, unable to remember where he was from or what kind of creature he was. Lindel also explains to Chise that in the insular mage community, the bond of apprenticeship is one of family, where the elder raises and teaches the younger, often later leading to marriage.
This story, in combination with Elias’s confusion about what a wife even is (he never gives any hint of believing there’s a sexual or even passionate element to marriage), exposes the root of Elias’s behavior towards Chise. The structure of their relationship is an imitation of the only other close relationships he has known with others; relationships which themselves reflect the loneliness of being a mage in a world where such people are becoming increasingly scarce.
Thus, while Magus’ Bride has undeniable elements of wife husbandry in the story, they’re not handled in nearly as problematic a fashion as some other romances. Elias is more mature than Chise in some ways (primarily his magical abilities), but ultimately he’s still lonely and naive, desiring to learn more about humanity and be needed by someone himself. The structure of this relationship is uneven and problematic at the start, but Yamazaki writes this with awareness in order to develop Elias’s emotional distance from others and his misunderstandings about relationships.
Understanding the origins of both of these characters allows the reader to see their relationship as one of mutual learning and clumsiness, as both Chise and Elias are struggling to overcome significant emotional wounds. In the beginning, this relationship is certainly not equal, with Elias holding a position of authority over Chise that seems to call back to Gothic romances starring Byronic men and women of poor circumstance. Elias certainly has a lot of money and magical power, which enables him to buy Chise outright with little fuss at the competitive auction.
The fact that Chise was purchased like property isn’t something the story expects us to forget, however. Over the first several volumes, multiple characters close to Elias chew him out for doing something so immoral, although the priest Simon notes that doing so was still “humane” in his eyes because it offered safety to Chise, who was obviously in need.
It’s also clear that Elias did not buy Chise with the intent to actually keep her as his slave. He removes her chains as soon as they’re out of the auction house and says she’s free to leave if she doesn’t want to be his apprentice. He also doesn’t stop the Ariels from inviting Chise to the realm of the fae, only stepping in to bring her home after she says she wants to stay.
Although these factors are still red flags that could make an audience suspect Elias won’t treat Chise well, overall he respects her autonomy and feelings. One major exception to this is the forced bathing scene in Chapter One, and although the joke here is ostensibly that Elias doesn’t think nudity is at all sexual, not everyone will find that in good taste.
Otherwise, Chise is free to make friends, go out into town, and make her own mistakes so long as she’s not in any danger. Though Elias does have a habit of keeping an eye on her when they’re separated, he never punishes her for keeping secrets or doing things without him.
While we shouldn’t overstate the value of simple good manners, I’m always relieved when the mysterious older guy in stories like this doesn’t engage in the sort of abusive monitoring and control that you see in a lot of romance stories like Hot Gimmick or Boys Over Flowers. Similarly, Elias warmed my heart immensely when he reached out to Chise’s familiar Ruth and became friends with him on their own terms. There’s never any hint of jealousy between mentor and familiar here; instead, the male characters bond over their shared experiences caring for Chise in a display of camaraderie that I’d love to see more of outside of shounen sports manga.
While it’s evident that Elias does not mistreat Chise or hold his authority over her head in a manipulative way, it’s also worth noting that the nature of their relationship does strongly influence Chise’s thoughts—in the beginning of the story, at least. Early on, Chise feels she owes Elias for buying her and providing her with a decent standard of living, and even goes so far as to forswear freedom and declare herself property. Even when Elias admits he had some selfish motivations for taking her on as an apprentice, Chise stays with him because she can’t imagine giving up having a place at someone’s side.
Thankfully, the artificer Angelica calls this mindset out for what it is: over-dependence. Although Chise thinks her relationship with Elias fixes all her problems, her friends can see that it only provides her an excuse to focus exclusively on someone else’s needs rather than her own.
Her self-destructive tendencies show up not only in this relationship, but in acts of kindness she performs time and again for near-strangers, providing magical aid that her body can’t handle. Even in the most recent manga volume, this is still a habit Chise is struggling to break, but over time she is learning to listen to her own voice and value her well-being more.
More unexpected, however, is the slow revelation of Elias’s own dependence on Chise. Far from being all-knowing and charismatic, Elias is unable to understand or express human emotions with any skill, and is frequently overwhelmed by the feelings Chise inspires in him, such as loneliness or fear of abandonment. Although Renfred accuses Elias of wanting to keep Chise cooped up with him out of possessiveness, it’s more accurate to say that Elias relies on Chise to teach him about emotions and help him keep his own burgeoning ones in check.
Certainly this is not a fair burden to put on Chise, but it is evidence that the two are mutually dependent on one another (sometimes to an unhealthy degree). Elias and Chise each characterize themselves as being “monstrous” or “cursed” in some way, which feeds into their shared fear of being rejected and abandoned by others. Confronting these feelings and discussing them openly leads the two to relate to each other better and start to equalize their relationship.
When Elias admits he is overwhelmed by loneliness, Chise is able to name the feeling for him, and he acknowledges that she’s his mentor in the ways of human feelings and relationships. This simple acknowledgement ushers in a new paradigm where the two alternate the roles of teacher and student, and can be honest with each other about the demons they’re facing. While Chise is the protagonist of the story and her personal journey of self-respect takes center stage, it’s heartening to see that Elias is also included in this aspect of the narrative.
Though it’s not a traditional love story, The Ancient Magus’ Bride is still a romance in the classical sense of centering on relationships and personal growth, and it’s a standout example of the supernatural romance genre in anime and manga. Kore Yamazaki puts a lot of real feeling into these characters’ internal conflicts, holding up a fantastical mirror to the kinds of relational problems that many people with trauma or social anxieties might experience.
Chise and Elias aren’t perfect, and neither is their relationship, but the narrative is aware of that and takes gradual steps to help them develop both as individuals and with each other. Each provides the tools the other needs to grow, and both are making an effort to improve themselves each day, just like the rest of us. Though we don’t yet know if Elias and Chise’s relationship will turn into a more traditional romance or if they really will get married (or how they might have changed as people by the time that happens), I look forward to seeing both of these characters gain a little more insight into themselves with each passing volume.